‘Belfast,’ Kenneth Branagh’s arty autofiction about a boyhood during The Troubles
You can’t go home again? Tell that to Kenneth Branagh, whose memory-besotted Belfast is a deliciously warm rush of boyhood recollections wrapped in flinty peacocking camerawork. His autofiction of a birthplace gone sideways shines with deep wells of humanity and intergenerational vim punctured through with outside turmoil and inner strife. Like every endearing coming-of-age chronicle, its ballast is bittersweet poignance. How Irish, how fitting, and how winningly inevitable that Branagh lards his soundtrack with Van Morrison tunes.
BELFAST ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Jude Hall
Running time: 97 mins
Branagh sets the film among The Troubles, the sectarian violence in Ireland that Protestants unleashed on Catholics in the late 1960s—or, according to this film, on August 15, 1969. That’s when tow-headed 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hall) went from fighting imaginary dragons with his neighbors to facing fevered rioters hungry for the glass-shattering demolition of Catholic row houses on his mostly Protestant street.
But Belfast isn’t a political drama by any stretch, choosing to recuse itself from nuance with a child’s-eye view of the world. Here, Catholic neighbors are kind and vulnerable while Protestants are either puffed-up street thugs or sweaty pastors delivering fire-and-brimstone rants punctuated with righteous spittle. The only issue more insistently black and white is the film’s cinematography, a mostly monochromatic ravishment that’s aggressively, even distractingly, self-conscious. Color pops up sparingly, a calculated surprise signaling either halcyon present-day snapshots—the opening feels like a tourist video—or the cinematic escapism of a local movie palace that shows One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Branagh is a protean filmmaker whose career happily blurs highbrow-lowbrow lines, bouncing smoothly from Shakespeare to Marvel. He’s as comfortable with comedy as he is with action, drama, and suspense. But when to comes to the nuts and bolts of motion-picture direction, he’s never distinguished himself to be more than just a completely competent craftsman. In Belfast, he seems to be straining hard to prove himself as an artist, framing actors within frames (so many windowsill shots!), sweating every off-center composition and skewed angle. It’s an exhausting facet of an otherwise joyous, sober, and generous remembrance of an adolescence unjustly interrupted.
Belfast excels where stage vet Branagh seems to be most at home: with the actors. Belfast is brimming with luminous performances, from obvious talents like Dame Judi Dench as a cantankerous grandma and Ciarán Hinds as a delectably endearing grandfather to the fetching young parents Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, ever-stressed financially and ever romantically tested because of it. But Branagh’s ace in the hole is Jude Hill as his avatar, a wide-eyed moppet whose ebullience is matched only by the soulful ache he expresses at the sudden realization that his young years—and his formative innocence—will soon be behind him.
The cast sneaks up on you, and earns your love. The housewife Balfe, a sexy but wounded sylph; Dornan, a dashing shipyard worker struggling to be man enough to provide; Dench and Hinds the family’s wizened, beating heart; and Hill the eager, wounded puppy whose travails at school and crush on neighborhood Catherine are simple and relatable. Resistance is futile for audiences with a modicum of sympathy, and who doesn’t love Irish accents?
It’s inevitable that people will compare Belfast to Roma, stylistically and thematically, and also Hope and Glory, another story of plucky British fortitude in the face of destruction. Cineastes may even invoke the poetic distillation of The Long Day Closes. But Belfast is its own movie because of a writer-director very much alive and attuned to his own experiences in a way that doesn’t come off as boastful, exploitative or self-pitying. It’s a tribute to a time gone by, as well as a portrait of the formative times that take the measure of a man.